Composer: Bohuslav Martinů
Director: Christopher Alden
Conductor: Garry Walker
Reviewer: Dawn Smallwood
Martinů’s The Greek Passion, a new production, marks the opening of Opera North’s autumn season. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ text, it was written over 60 years ago and its score, albeit heavily revised, made its debut in Switzerland in 1961. However, due to the themes’ relevance, Aleš Březina’s first version known as the “London” one, debuted in 1999 at the Bregenz Festival.
The Greek Passion centres around a tight-knit religious Greek village, Lycovrissi, and its residents learn about a group of refugees, led by priest Fotis (John Savournin), arriving in the village. Ignorance and misguidance prevail among the villagers, which leads the refugees to leave and retreat on the nearby Sarakina Mountain. Only a handful of villagers show compassion, initially Katerina (Magdalena Molendowska), and then Manolios (Nicky Spence), Yannakos (Paul Nilon), Kostandis (Richard Mosley-Evans), Michelis (Rhodri Prys Jones) and Panait (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts).
The story is invariably linked to the Passion play where some of the residents have been assigned characters for the village’s performance next year. Manolios (Spence), influenced from being chosen as Jesus, adapts a Christ-like personality and presence in the community in promoting chastity, compassion and humanity. He encourages Katerina (Molendowska) and the “apostles” (Nilon, Mosley-Evans, Prys Jones, Lloyd-Roberts) to be the same. Their chosen paths somewhat reap consequential conclusions that affect all of them especially Manolios.
Charles Edwards’ contrast staging could not be any more black and white, physically and figuratively, with black representing the villagers and white silhouettes for the refugees and their plight. The coloured costumes, Manolios, Katerina and the ‘apostles’ wear, significantly stand for representing their collective mission. The staging is supported by the lighting and the props interlinks with the story and, crucially, its themes. The highly positioned cut out words “Give us what you have too much of” link to the morality of the opera and humanity, compassion and charity being the main drivers. Also shown are the minds and mentality of those whose state of mind are occupied with closed-minded opinions from their leaders.
The tragic production is just as powerfully and spiritually theatrical as well as operatically musical with a story well voiced and well sung. The company gives exemplary performances particularly those from Spence’s portrayal as the spiritual self-sacrificing Manolio and the same with Molendowska as Katerina. What is noted is the desperately moving role of Savournin’s Priest Fotis whose presence throughout the story provokes thinking towards the bigger picture. It is good to see the Chorus of Opera North present, representing both the villagers and refugees, and importantly interacting with the spirit of the story.
This is another excellent performance, under the baton of Garry Walker and the direction of Christopher Alden, from Opera North and The Greek Passion resonates just as much today than it did over 60 years ago and how the themes’ relevance play a part in modern society.
Reviewed on 14th September 2019. Touring | Image: Tristram Kenton